The Tombs of the Patriarchs in Hebron, West Bank, is a shrine complex built mainly under Herod (1st cent. BC) with additions by the Crusaders (12th century AD). It centers around the Cave of Machpelah, an ancient double cave revered since at least 1000 BC as the burial site of the Hebrew patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives.
This is the second holiest site in Judaism after the Western Wall in Jerusalem and has been a Jewish pilgrimage destination from earliest times to today. It is also highly sacred to Muslims, who revere Abraham highly as a true prophet of God, and to Christians for the same reason.
Nearly all of what is seen today was built by Herod the Great in the 1st century BC in the same style as his Temple of Jerusalem and enclosure at Mamre, neither of which survive. It is thus of inestimable historical value as well as great sacred significance.
Today, the Tombs of the Patriarchs is the center of ongoing conflicts between Palestinians and Jews in Hebron and is therefore carefully segregated and under tight security.
In the Bible
Genesis 23:19 and 25:9:
History of Tombs of the Patriarchs
It is not known when this site was first revered as the burial place of Abraham, but recent excavations of the double cave revealed artifacts from the Early Israelite Period (some 30 centuries ago). The great wall that still surrounds the Cave of Machpelah was built by Herod the Great (31-4 BC).
The Herodian complex probably consisted of six cenotaphs laid out symmetrically in pairs in an open court. This arrangement has been generally preserved to the present day. The entrance to the enclosure and cave may have been at the lower level near the center of the southwest side, near the later Tomb of Joseph.
The shrine was visited by Christian pilgrims from at least the 4th century, when accounts described it as an open structure containing the six tombs. In 6th-century accounts, it had porticoes around the interior, a basilica, and a screen separating Christian and Jewish pilgrims. No trace has yet been found of a church from this period.
It is not known when a mosque was first built here, but it must have existed by 918, when an entrance was cut at the center of the northeast wall by the Fatimid caliph. At this time the mosque for Friday prayers extended across the enclosure at the southern end; the mihrab wasin the southeast wall.
By 985, domes had been built over the tombs of Abraham and Sarah; those of Isaac and Rebecca were in the mosque; and those of Jacob and Leah were in a building at the northwest end. The enclosure was carpeted, textiles covered the walls, and a multitude of lamps and lanterns illuminated the interior.
A charitable food kitchen was built along the northwest wall and rooms for Muslim pilgrims were provided above the prayer hall. The tomb of Joseph was added under a dome against the outer southwest face of the enclosure.
Godfrey of Bouillon took the Herodian complex by assault in 1100 as part of the Crusades. Under Crusader rule, the shrine was called the Castle of St. Abraham. A chapter of Augustinian canons was established in the complex. The Crusader secular and military establishment was housed in a new annex on the southwest face. This annex was later used as a caravanserai, religious schools, and a barracks, before being demolished in the 1960s.
In 1119, the location of the burial cave under the cenotaphs was rediscovered by chance and entered by cutting through the Herodian paving of the enclosure to a passage beneath. The bones of the patriarchs were said to have been found in the cave, brought to the upper court and placed in reliquaries. Most of the bones were eventually put back beneath the court in labeled reliquaries, but some were sold to pilgrims as prized relics and taken to the West.
Around this time, perhaps as a result of the discovery, a new Crusader church was built at the south end of the enclosure on the site of the former mosque. The cenotaphs of Isaac and Rebecca were moved slightly to the west to accomodate the vaulting. The church became a cathedral, the seat of a bishop. Several accounts from this period exist of those who were able to visit the sacred caves below.
The Crusader kingdom fell in 1187 and Saladin converted the Crusader church into a mosque, which it has remained ever since. Jewish and Christian pilgrims were initially allowed to continue visiting the tombs, but they were expelled by Baybars in 1266.
In 1318-20, Sanjar al-Jawili constructed a second mosque on the northeast exterior of the enclosure called the al-Jawiliyya. The main mosque was decorated with mosaic and marble panelling in the 1330s. There are accounts of Muslims descending to the cave tombs in this period.
Major renovations undertaken in 1382-99 included cutting a door to the tomb of Joseph in the southwest enclosure wall, adding porticoes along the southwest side of the courtyard, rebuilding the dome over the tomb of Abraham and changing the cenotaphs of Abraham, Sarah, Jacob and Leah from their original rectangles into polygonal structures with domes.
Around the 1490s, access to the caves was closed and they remain closed today. Access to the site remained forbidden to Jews and Christians until the late 1800s, and then only by rare permission for a few prominent Europeans.
As of 1922, Hebron's population of 16,500 included 430 Jews, who still did not have access to the Tombs of the Patriarchs. Following riots and massacre in 1929, the Jewish community left.
After the 1967 war, Major-General Rabbi Shlomo Goren was the first Jew to enter the Tomb of the Patriarchs for perhaps 1,000 years. Israeli archaeologists explored the caves and found artifacts from the Iron Age and from the 12th-century Crusader period.
Jewish settlement in Hebron began after 1967, partly in the old western quarter and in new settlements to the east. Tensions continue to be high between the groups, especially after a Jewish settler massacred 29 Muslims in the mosque in 1994.
Today, the site is still mostly a mosque and is under control of the Muslim Waqf, as with the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The complex has been strictly segregated between Jewish and Muslim areas ever since the 1994 incident, and there is heavy Israeli security throughout the city.
What to See at Tombs of the Patriarchs
The Tombs of the Patriarchs consists of a great rectangular enclosure with two square minarets. Its four corners are oriented to the four points of the compass. On the northeast exterior is the al-Jawiliyya Mosque (added 1320) and on the northeast exterior is the Tomb of Joseph (added 900s).
Nearly all of what is seen today was built by Herod the Great in the 1st century BC in the same style as his Temple of Jerusalem (of which only the Western Wall remains) and enclosure at Mamre. It is thus a remarkable and priceless survival, nearly as sacred to archaeologists as it is to Jewish, Christian and Muslim pilgrims.
The complex is generally divided into three rooms, each with the cenotaphs of a patriarch and his wife. The cenotaphs of the patriarchs are interchangeably referred to as "tombs," but no one believes the relics of the patriarchs are enshrined in them. Cenotaphs are memorials of those buried nearby.
As described above (see History), the actual bones of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah are believed to be enshrined in the subterranean chambers below, with some relics having been taken to the West in the Crusader period.
The main, Muslim section of the enclosure is entered via a long flight of stairs along the northwest wall, from which there is a closeup view of the fine Herodian (1st cent. BC) stones that comprise the wall. The path turns east around the corner and leads past the al-Jawilliyaa before entering into the center of the complex.
In the center of the enclosure is a court, with a groin-vaulted porch (12-14th century) that leads to the central room containing the cenotaphs of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham is on the west and Sarah is on the east; their cenotaphs were constructed in the 10th or 11th century and modified to their present polygonal, domed shape in the 14th century.
A wide door between the cenotaphs leads into the large southern room (Ohel Yitzhak in Hebrew), which contains the cenotaphs of Isaac and Rebecca, the main mosque, and remains of the Crusader church. The cenotaphs were rebuilt in the 12th century. The lovely mihrab (niche) and minbar (pulpit; from 1043) of the mosque are in the southeastern wall. The oculus above the mihrab and the marble panelling are 14th century. The vaulting, piers and capitals are survivals from the 12th-century Crusader church and the upper windows are from the 12th-century clerestory.
To the right of the minbar is a small baldachino (canopy), which was raised in the 12th century over the entrance to the caves discovered by the Crusaders. It must have been re-erected after the entrance was sealed. Across the room is a 14th-century canopy next to the mosque entrance. This stands over a 600m-diameter shaft that became the only opening to the chamber leading to the double cave below. There is currently no access to these caves.
The north end is the Jewish area; it is entered via new external steps at the northwest corner of the enclosure. This room contains the cenotaphs of Jacob and Leah and a synagogue. It also includes the former Women's Mosque on the bottom floor, the Mosque of Joseph on the upper level and access to the cenotaph of Joseph. Jews may not access the mosque area with the tombs of Isaac and Rebecca except on specified occasions.
Quick Facts on Tombs of the Patriarchs
|Names:||Castle of St. Abraham · Cave of Machpelah · Haram al-Ibrahimi · Haram al-Khalil · Ma'arat HaMachpelah · Tombs of the Patriarchs|
|Categories:||mausolea; biblical sites; caves|
|Dates:||34-31 BCE; 12th C|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||31.524703° N, 35.110567° E|
|Address:||Hebron, State of Palestine|
|Hours:||Mosque open 7:30-11:30am, 1-2:30pm, 3:30-5pm|
Closed Fridays and Saturday morning
|Lodging:||View hotels near Tombs of the Patriarchs|
- Kay Prag, Blue Guide Israel & the Palestinian Territories, 1st ed. (2002), 393-98.
- The Cave of Machpelah - The Tomb of the Patriarchs - Jewish Virtual Library
- Hebron - BiblePlaces.com
- Detailed Map of Hebron - Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs
- Photos of Tombs of the Patriarchs - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Tombs of the Patriarchs, Hebron
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